A federal judge on Thursday rejected Jeff Bezos’ latest legal attempt to void NASA’s multi-million dollar lunar lander contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The decision ended a month-long battle between the space companies of two of the world’s richest men that was a significant obstacle to NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972.
The ruling makes it almost certain that every time American astronauts return to the lunar surface, they will travel in a spacecraft built by Musk’s company. That adds another victory for SpaceX, a company that has become a dominant player in orbital spaceflight, including serving as NASA’s primary partner in the transportation of astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.
But NASA has been unable to work on the program with SpaceX for the duration of Blue Origin’s legal challenges, which may delay a return to the moon.
“It has been disappointing not to be able to move forward,” said Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy director, in an interview Wednesday before the ruling was published. He added that meeting with the company to evaluate the schedule for the mission to the moon was a “very high priority” for NASA now that the litigation has ended in its favor.
Blue Origin sued NASA in August, claiming the agency unfairly awarded SpaceX a $ 2.9 billion contract in April to conduct the first two missions to the moon. The contract dispute was one of many industry conflicts that reflected the competing ambitions of two entrepreneurs who are investing billions of dollars in rival efforts to normalize space transportation.
The launches that were the subject of the dispute will be part of Artemis, NASA’s flagship effort to build an American presence on the lunar surface. The coveted contract to land humans on the moon would have provided a crucial boost to the credibility of Blue Origin, which has taken humans to the edge of space on a tourist spacecraft but struggled to advance its ambitions to build a rocket that could soar. . cargo in orbit for NASA and the Department of Defense. After losing to SpaceX, Bezos’s company engaged in months of legal shoving, rigorous lobbying, and public complaints.
The ruling by Judge Richard A. Hertling of the US Court of Federal Claims denied Blue Origin’s arguments and sided with NASA and SpaceX on Thursday, awarding Blue Origin its second loss after it protested its first. unsuccessful time for the SpaceX contract with a government oversight agency earlier this year. . But his entire order and the justification he offered was sealed. Whatever the judge’s reasoning, Blue Origin has few other legal avenues to challenge the contract.
“It’s not the decision we wanted,” Bezos said. wrote on Twitter after the ruling, “but we respect the judgment of the court and wish NASA and SpaceX every success in the contract.”
A Blue Origin spokesperson said the company’s lawsuit highlighted what it considered “significant security issues” in NASA’s effort to provide funding for a lunar lander “that still need to be addressed,” but added: “We look forward to hearing. from NASA on the next steps “. “For future lunar lander competitions under the Artemis program (Blue Origin won $ 25 million from NASA in September in a modest lunar lander design program).
Blue Origin had partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to develop and offer its Blue Moon lunar lander to NASA at a cost of $ 5.9 billion. I was hoping that putting together an aerospace heavyweight team would be too good for NASA to reject.
NASA initially wanted to choose two different lunar landing systems, in case one was left behind during development. But it was limited by funding from Congress, which last year allocated only a quarter of what the White House requested for the program. NASA ended up awarding a contract only to SpaceX, as the company’s offer was half the price of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon proposal.
NASA funds, now unlocked by the agency’s court victory, will help fuel the breakneck development of Starship, a fully reusable system that is the centerpiece of Musk’s ambitions to send people to Mars. The company has been developing and testing the rocket launch at its rapidly expanding facility in South Texas. After several tests of the vehicle that ended in explosions, the company completed a high-altitude flight that landed successfully in May. In the near future, the company plans an orbital test of the spacecraft without passengers on board.
The NASA contract requires two Starship trips to the moon and vice versa, with the second mission carrying American astronauts. The deadline set by NASA for the lunar landing, first announced by the Trump administration, is 2024.
But that was seen as unrealistic even before the Blue Origin legal challenges, which forced NASA to halt work with SpaceX while the litigation raged for six months.
In an initial Blue Origin protest to the Government Accountability Office filed in April, the company argued that NASA should have canceled or changed the rules of the program when it realized it could not afford two landing systems (another company, Dynetics, filed a similar complaint request). Rejecting that argument, the bureau ruled that NASA had fairly evaluated the proposals. Although he agreed that NASA had improperly waived a requirement for SpaceX, that mistake was not serious enough to merit remaking the competition.
Blue Origin’s subsequent lawsuit in court focused largely on that NASA waiver, which allowed SpaceX to bypass certain government safety reviews to accommodate its novel plan to launch a dozen “tanker” rockets that would power its two Starship launches bound for the moon, legal documents. in the GAO dispute indicated. Rather than having one review for each launch, as NASA originally required, the agency allowed SpaceX to propose just three reviews in total: one for each Moon-bound Starship launch, and one that spanned all tanker launches.
Blue Origin cited that resignation to support its claim that NASA gave SpaceX an unfair advantage.
During the litigation, Blue Origin lobbied Congress to pressure NASA to add another company to the landing program. His lobbyists sought to paint the SpaceX spacecraft as risky and “extremely complex” in the materials they distributed to lawmakers. SpaceX lobbyists fought back, effectively casting Blue Origin as a sore loser and stating that it plans to conduct reviews with NASA before each Starship launch.
But NASA resisted pressure from Blue Origin and signaled its goal of starting another lunar landing competition next year. What remains unknown is how much funding the agency will get for those missions from a Congress embroiled in budget battles over President Biden’s social spending agenda.
And as the competition in space between Bezos and Musk heats up and draws more public attention, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other progressive lawmakers have dabbled in space politics, opposing additional lunar lander money as part. of his criticism of billionaires.
“They’re in the wrong field, and they don’t know it,” Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator during Barack Obama’s presidency, said of progressives who criticize billionaire-backed space companies.
She and other spaceflight experts point out that NASA’s funding model for the lunar lander and other programs causes billionaire-backed space companies to pay more of their own money, saving NASA money, than which has been the case with NASA’s more traditional partnerships with Boeing, Lockheed. Martin and other aerospace stalwarts.
Despite uncertain future funding, lawmakers also continue to ask NASA to choose a second lander.
“Members of Congress who say NASA needs a second competitor, and are not giving money, are actually only doing a disservice to the same agency that they say they care,” Garver added.
Whether Blue Origin lands a moon landing contract in the future, the company has set itself other goals. Last month, it announced a partnership to build a private space station, Orbital Reef, as an eventual replacement for the International Space Station. It could be another way for Bezos to pursue the goal that he said motivated the founding of Blue Origin: to have “millions of people living and working in space.”